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Midterm realignment is more a whimper than a shout
San Francisco Chronicle


January 02, 2007
Tuesday PM

WASHINGTON -- Anyone who followed politics in 2006 heard that the midterm election was a cry for change.

Voters demanded a change of course in Iraq; rejected the leadership of President Bush; or turned against a do-nothing, ethically challenged Congress. Many thought this meant that the status quo was unacceptable.

That's a good story line, but it does not explain why 93 percent of House seats and 94 percent of Senate seats did not change party hands. The incumbent or the incumbent's party was returned to office in 432 of 468 races - 435 in the House and 33 in the Senate.

True, the outcome did produce profound changes. Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois will hand the speaker's gavel Thursday to Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. In the Senate, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who called the Environmental Protection Agency a "Gestapo bureaucracy" and global warming a "hoax," will be replaced as chairman of the Senate Environment Committee by California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Yet the perception that the results profoundly altered the nation's red-blue divide is probably as simplistic as the assumption that a tidy red-blue divide exists in the first place.

The nation was evenly divided in 2000, when it took five weeks to determine a winner of the presidential election. It was only slightly more favorable to Republicans in 2004, when Bush defeated John Kerry. And in November, it tilted modestly in the opposite direction as Democrats outpolled Republicans by about two percentage points in the congressional elections.

"The Democratic win is not a sign of political realignment," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, shortly after the final votes had been counted.

Instead, Kohut and others who have studied the results say the outcome was the result of the Democrats' ability to capture the political center - or the GOP's failure to hold onto it. This trend could reverse in coming elections.

"There is enough churning out there that you don't want to make long-term projections," said Norm Ornstein, a nonpartisan congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

That California and Massachusetts have Republican governors while Wyoming and Virginia have Democratic governors is a strong indicator that the red-blue color scheme is not so precise.

"The whole notion of a red-blue cleavage that runs right from the very top right down to the very bottom is bogus," said Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and author of the book: "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America."

That does not diminish the Democratic gains in 2006, which bode well for the party in 2008 and - if they hold - beyond.

Democratic victories in New Hampshire and Connecticut left Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut as the only Republican House member from New England. While a century ago, the Northeast was solidly Republican, 21 of the region's 22 House seats now belong to Democrats. The demise of the Northeastern liberal Republican mirrors the demise of the Southern conservative Democrat, and could have lasting implications for the balance of power in Washington.

Similarly, the Republican domination of the West was tamped down by a strong showing from a new crop of conservative Democratic candidates. Six of the eight Mountain West states now have Democratic governors, and the GOP's once-mighty dominance of the region's congressional delegation has shrunk to an almost even 25-to-23 seat edge.

In Montana, the victory of Sen.-elect Jon Tester means the state that voted for Bush by a 20 percentage-point margin in 2004 will soon have two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor, and Democratic control of the state legislature.

William Galston, who served as President Bill Clinton's domestic policy adviser, said the Democrats' ability to attract more independents, Catholics and Latinos, among others, meant the number of congressional races settled by 10 percentage points or fewer doubled from 2004 to 2006. The number of seats settled by margins of five percentage points or fewer more than tripled.

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin conducted a poll of 1,002 voters after election day and concluded that nearly one-third of Bush voters in 2004 did not vote Republican in 2006, either staying home or voting for another party.

"They defected (from the GOP) because they didn't feel their party represents them," Garin said, rejecting single-issue explanations such as the war in Iraq.

Garin found in an EMILY's List survey that little demographic similarities among the Bush defectors, though he said they tended to be younger than most GOP loyalists, and more likely to describe themselves as independent.


E-mail Marc Sandalow at msandalow(at)

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